Apr 14, 2022
Six ideas for sourcing alternative LED components

By Jerry Plank

It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that this decade has started out on the wrong foot. The current global supply chain debacle has become the lighting industry’s greatest challenge, and we’re starting to see the fallout with companies closing shop. The biggest problem facing all of us is the limited ability to alternatively source critical components used in LED products. Especially, the little black boxes that serve to energize our LEDs are proving extremely hard to substitute, as most, if not all, are made off-shore.

Those little black boxes used in LED products are our industry’s current albatross, and as Oliver Hardy stated to Stan Laurel, “Well, Stanley this is another nice mess you’ve gotten us into.” However, in order to grow as an industry, we must acknowledge that we have no one to blame but ourselves.

How our industry got to this precarious point with the little black boxes is a long story, but perhaps we can now use the lessons learned to slay the dragon and gain our freedom after some poor planning. Einstein is credited for saying: “Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty, lies an opportunity.”

First, some real-world observations regarding the global supply chain:

1. Logistics: There was a time, not so long ago, when most lighting companies produced everything in-house to maintain cost controls, maintain quality levels and, more importantly, to better control production dates. Increases in labor rates from organized labor and stricter governmental environmental pollution controls in the 1970s sent manufacturers scrambling for outside vendors to avoid cost overruns and lessen government intervention. Now, with a global supply chain, any break in the transportation chain, such as the ships now backed up in California, creates major interruptions in production. Where are the logistical contingencies to side-step these transportation difficulties?

2. Critical component standardization: Legacy light sources and associated control ballasts often produced similarly by different manufacturers allowed for easy substitutions. Mostly, substitutions of lamp ballasts were permitted by the NRTL (Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory) without any further testing, as the ballasts were mostly of an ANSI type where the lamp would be operated at the ratings needed for proper operation and life.

Further, the lamp ballasts were either Class P, thermally protected for fluorescent lamps, or had an easily usable “T” code (temperature code) for HID lamps, such that manufacturers would perform thermal tests with the highest “T” code ballast to represent cooler “T” code ballast. Where are the ANSI standard types of LED drivers to allow for easier substitution?

3. Footprint: Aside from some “oddball” ballasts such as the preheat reactor fluorescent ballast, most HID and fluorescent ballasts had interchangeable sizes making substitutions easier to produce. When low-voltage lighting took off—first using magnetic transformers and later electronic devices—the industry soon standardized the size footprint for most electrical ratings. Where is the push by our industry to have standard footprint sizes for LED drivers and components to allow for easier substitution?

4. NRTL standards: NRTLs all have their own approach as to how manufacturers can substitute critical components, but not enough effort has been made offering easier ways to judge whether components using different LED drivers or arrays, etc., can be swapped out without creating an electrical shock or fire hazard. Where are the safety standards to push for ANSI types of devices, giving manufacturers greater ability to make substitutions on the fly?

5. Competition: It’s no secret that the circuitry in each little black box is proprietary, unique and often protected by different trade patents. Our industry, however, needs to see greater cooperation between vendors, where standardization of size and a “T” code system is created to avoid supply chain issues. Where is the cooperation between vendors?

6. Light source output: When making critical component substitutions, care must be taken as the LED color temperature, intensity and life expectations may be drastically different depending on which manufacturer’s LED or driver is used. How do we tackle the topic of light quality and where are industry associations creating performance standards for our critical components?

We can go on and on about how we got to this point but more importantly we must all take responsibility for allowing this to happen to our industry. While geopolitical situations will always make any global supply chain risky, we as an industry need to step up to create the solutions and stop shooting ourselves in the foot. Our industry can and will overcome the global supply chain crisis when we all chip in and start pushing this rock uphill. Game on.

Contributor(s)

Jerry Plank

Jerry Plank, LC

Jerry Plank, LC, is the CEO/founder of Wilger Testing, an accredited third-party laboratory testing for product safety and... More info »